Canada's Court System
Criminal and civil law
There are two kinds of law in Canada. Criminal law deals with crime, like robbing a bank. A person may go to jail if he or she is convicted of committing a crime. The Crown prosecutor is a lawyer for the government. The Crown prosecutor must prove that the person who is accused of committing the crime (the accused) is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This means the judge (or jury) must be almost certain that the accused committed the crime. The accused does not have to prove that he or she is innocent.
Civil law deals with all other legal issues, like contracts, buying property, personal injury, and so on. If people cannot solve civil law problems on their own, they may have to start a legal action and have a judge make a decision about their case. The person who starts the legal action is called “the claimant”. The person who the plaintiff is suing is called “the defendant”. In a civil trial, the plaintiff must prove his or her case “on a balance of probabilities”. This means that the plaintiff has to convince the judge that his or her story is “more likely to be true” than the defendant’s.
Family law cases, like divorce, are another kind of civil law. You can learn about family law cases by clicking here.
How our courts are organized
There are different levels and types of courts in Canada. Each court has a different “jurisdiction”, which means that they can decide different types of cases. There are:
- Provincial and territorial courts
- Superior courts
- Courts of appeal
- Federal courts
Tribunals play an important role in dispute resolution, but they are not part of the court system.
This chart shows how our courts in British Columbia are organized, from the “first level” Provincial Court to the “highest court,” the Court of Appeal.
The Provincial Court of British Columbia
The Provincial Court of BC is the first level of court. The Provincial Court hears most criminal cases. It also hears cases involving children under 18 years of age (called young offenders) who have been charged with committing a crime.
The Provincial Court also hears cases that do not involve criminal law. It hears:
- Many family law cases (but not divorce or division of property used by the family). This is called Family Court. You can find out more about Family Court here
- Civil cases where the amount of money being claimed is up to $25,000. This is called Small Claims Court
- Cases that involve traffic offences
The Supreme Court of British Columbia
The BC Supreme Court has jurisdiction in (the right to decide) most legal cases. It hears cases
- About serious criminal offences
- Civil cases involving large amounts of money
- Family cases that are about divorce or dividing property owned by the family
- Appeals of cases from the Provincial Court
The Court of Appeal for British Columbia
If a party does not agree with the decision from their trial in the BC Supreme Court, they can “appeal” their case to the BC Court of Appeal. An appeal means that judges from another court will review their case to see if the judge made the right decision. Usually, three judges from the Court of Appeal will hear the appeal.
The federal court system is separate from the provincial court system. The Federal Court can only deal with some cases that involve the rights of all Canadians, like citizenship, and cases that involve an organization owned by the government of Canada (like Canada Post).
An appeal from the Federal Court goes to the Federal Court of Appeal, then to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is the highest level court in Canada. It hears appeals from all other courts in Canada. There is no appeal from a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tribunals are like courts, but they are not part of the court system. An example of a tribunal is the Residential Tenancy Branch, which solves disputes between landlord and tenants. Tribunals are an important system for resolving special disputes.
Tribunals hear disputes about special government rules and regulations. An adjudicator, not a judge, hears the case. The process is less formal than a court hearing. Adjudicators have very specialized knowledge about one area of law, like employment insurance, disability benefits, or refugee claims.
A tribunal decision can be reviewed by the court through a process called “judicial review”. It is often difficult to get a tribunal decision set aside because judges don’t like to second-guess a decision made by an expert tribunal.
To learn about administrative tribunals, go to AdminLawBC.ca.